Showdown with..never mind.

Friday, November 13th, 1998

There’s a poster-size chart in the halls of CNN’s Atlanta headquarters that tells the story of that network’s amazing strength—and weakness. It’s a graph of ratings and audience over the past decade or so—and when—and only when—the nation or world is in crisis, when a plane has gone down or something in the Mideast has blown up—CNN’s audience soars.

No surprise. And it’s no surprise, then, that CNN’s crew was in place and ready last weekend to cover the parry and thrust of the latest confrontation between Iraq and the rest of the world.

They made it look easy, the same way that the Braves can, on a good day. Put Wolf Blitzer in the White House, Christiane Amanpour in Baghdad, post correspondents at the Pentagon, the UN, and a generic anchor or two at CNN Center in Atlanta, and switch back and forth, covering challenge and counterchallenge, verbal strike and counterstrike. A statement is made at the White House, and seemingly moments later, the Iraqi official response arrives in Ms. Amanpour’s voice.

"Let’s go to the UN." "Now, let’s switch to the Pentagon." "Now, back to the White House." "Let’s ask…no, we’re switching to the UN, where Nizar Hamdoon is speaking live." This is global village electronic diplomacy at its best, where officials of state argue and negotiate simultaneously through back channels and through the most public front channel there is. They watch (as we do) as actions and reactions accumulate and boil over. This political brinksmanship on a global scale is observed, moderated, and filtered through a control room in Atlanta. Switch, switch, switch. The CNN correspondents are arguably experts at their beats, and when there’s a story to tell, the producers in Atlanta wisely sit back and let them tell the story. The anchor need do little more than take us live from one point on the globe to another, with mercifully little "happy talk," almost no contrived questioning of the field correspondents by the folks back home.

And well into CNN’s second decade, we take this package for granted: the preproduced "Showdown with Iraq" graphics, complete with ominous music.. A dependable stable of political and military experts. Okay, they’ve even fired up the annoying Larry King in "serious mode." They’ve got the routine down.

When CNN’s on a story like this, it can be compelling television. And the rest of the time? I think everyone—including Ted Turner—expected CNN to be able to cover all the world’s news in depth when there isn’t one overwhelming story. But when there’s no crisis to be found, the channel’s coverage is mostly paper-thin, repetitive—almost as if they’re in standby, waiting for the fire alarm to ring again.

Why? It seems that when CNN tries to tell bigger documentary-size stories, audiences—and interest in general—don’t seem to be there. It could be that the channel is a precision tool that can do just one thing—extremely well. Maybe they’ve determined there’s no way to make the other stories compelling. Maybe, during a quiet moment between crises, they should listen to a little of NPR’s All Things Considered, and reconsider.